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Is it OK to Go Off Topic?

Anyone who has ever worked with children—3 years and up—knows how adept they are at veering off topic! Sometimes this is intentional on their part, and sometimes it is just a result of an active, inquisitive mind. Regardless, as a teacher (including parent teachers) should you allow children to take you off topic? If you do, aren’t you just relinquishing control over the curriculum and their education? The answer is, it depends on where each child’s questions or comments are leading. That is, are they somehow related to the topic at hand, or totally out in left field?

If you are studying forms of government and the child suddenly starts talking about archery, you do not want to engage that tangent; it cannot enhance your topic at hand. More importantly, if you entertain the comments, you will be willingly veering off topic and not meeting the day’s educational standards. Furthermore, you will have signaled to the child that it is acceptable to take the teacher off topic so that she can talk about whatever she wants. Over time it will become even harder to stay on topic and complete the required lessons. Therefore, as a teacher you want to either ignore the comment (preferable) or make a short comment, such as “we are not talking about ____ now,” and immediately move on.

If, however, the comments are somehow related to what you are discussing it can be very beneficial to follow the child’s thread of inquiry. For example, if you are teaching about cultural diversity and a child blurts out that he has a friend on his soccer team who is from the Philippines, you can use this information to enhance your lesson. For example, find the Philippines on a map; look up pictures on the internet of the Philippines; read books about the Philippines; create a Venn Diagram of similarities and differences between kids in the Philippines and kids in the United States. In doing so, you will be accomplishing several things: (1) validating the child’s inquisitiveness, (2) making learning meaningful, (3) broadening the lesson’s scope, and (4) possibly adding to your own knowledge, which is important for kids to witness (i.e., learning is a lifelong process).

So, shifting gears to address a child’s comments that will add value to your lesson is applauded! It is not so much going off topic, as it is enriching the topic. As the teacher you must be able to quickly determine whether following up on the comment will be valuable to the lesson at hand and be able to respond accordingly. Effective teachers should be flexible enough to make alterations to their lessons to best meet the needs of the students.

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